Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten is no stranger to controversy. His 2009 documentary Bananas!* went after the the Dole Food Company for using a pesticide that caused sterility in workers at a banana plantation in Nicaragua. When the fruit distributor came after him with a defamation lawsuit, he documented the case in his next film, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*. Now his latest film, Bikes vs. Cars, dives into the hot-button issue of transportation. Gertten, however, insists that his latest movie is not about taking on the automobile industry, but making the case for the positive impact bikes can have on the vitality of a city and its inhabitants. In the film's extended trailer above, Gertten explores cities throughout the world in order to discover the bicycle's potential. Set to release in 2014, the project is in production and currently raising funds via Kickstarter.
In the interview below, Gertten discusses Dole, the urge to make his current film, and the ways bicycles can change urban living. This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Atlantic: In your previous documentary films, you have a history of going up against the “Goliath.” What sort of complications does this pose for your production?
Fredrik Gertten: It’s a mistake to speculate on the consequence of the film. The challenge is to tell a story that people will watch and stay watching. When I did Bananas!* the story was out there, and a lot of media was reporting on it. I didn’t think I would get attacked, maybe I was naïve, but in Sweden and the United States we have freedom of speech and we have a right to tell and we should tell our stories. In this particular project there might be unhappy people (the auto industry), but they have an enormous amount of money to pay lobbyists and they will get their message out. We are a small voice. Maybe it’s a David and Goliath story, but they have so many more ways to put their message out. And what Dole did, I think, was a mistake. They were sending out a message that they don’t like freedom of speech.
I’m not looking to stop people from having cars. I love to drive a car, but I don’t want to commute in a car because I feel trapped. I want to drive a car to feel the freedom.
How do you make the film accessible to an audience beyond cyclists?
The documentary tradition in Europe is a little different than in the United States because of the sources of funding. We have already financed it 50% on our own through European public broadcasters which are dominant in Europe. We already have a broad audience through public broadcasting, and most of them (the viewers) will be in cars mainly. When I say bikes vs. cars, I don’t say bicyclists vs. car drivers.
A lot of the U.S. city infrastructure is built around the highway. Do you think that this makes the transition to more cyclists near impossible?
I believe that nothing is impossible and everything can be done. 25% of travels in the U.S. are less than a mile and 40% are less than two miles. Imagine the amount of oil you would save, and the reduction of traffic if people started to commute in a different way.
What are some policy changes that every city could start implementing today to make the roads more viable for cyclists?
There are so many city planning tools in the world to be inspired by. I think the city planner should start to listen to the bicyclists and the people interested in urban matters. There is a lot of experience out there. And most of the time you can make the changes without spending a lot of money.
In most cities you go faster with a bike but it still can be very dangerous. More people are switching to bicycles but the city planning is not up to date. But cities understand that if there are more people on bikes there will be less traffic on the roads. In one way, everyone will be happier.
As a filmmaker you bump into stories you want to do , but this is one I have wanted to do for a long time, and I found a way to do it. To make a documentary, you need more than a subject, you need an idea that makes you go “aha,” and this time I think I found it. You want to make a film that can be used as a tool for people to discuss what’s going on in society. A good documentary is entertaining but leaves something behind for people to use in their daily lives. It’s an ambition to make people see things from a new perspective.
If you would like to learn more about the project visit their Kickstarter.